May 18, 2022 3:22 am

Hong Kong will cull 2,000 hamsters, guinea pigs and other pets for fear of covid contagion to humans

Hamster owners were trickling into the Sha Tin Animal Management Center, a gloomy building on the outskirts of Hong Kong. Most alone. Some admitted to having left tearful children at home. Everyone carefully wore their mask and behind it, a face of circumstances. In hand, a bag or a box. They came to deliver their pets, obeying the instructions of the authorities of the autonomous territory. In a move that sparked fury among Hong Kong citizens, the health department decided the sacrifice of 2,000 hamsters, chinchillas and guinea pigs after seven specimens in the same store animals tested positive for covid.

The sacrifice of small mammals was decided as a “precautionary measure” to prevent the spread of coronavirus in the former British colony – which like the rest of China adopted a “covid zero” policy – after a store employee and a client would get sick with covid and given the possibility that it was the rodents who infected them, in what would be the first known case of transmission of the virus from animals to people in Hong Kong. The importation of these animals was also temporarily prohibited.

The establishment, in the heart of Hong Kong, was closed on Tuesday, when the positive of the animals was confirmed. Late at night, health workers and officials could be seen leaving the shop, dressed from head to toe in protective suits, carrying red bags marked with a danger sign containing biological remains. The store of the establishment, which has six other branches in the city, was also closed.

Immediately, The Hong Kong Department of Health began to insistently request the owners of hamsters and other small mammals acquired after December 22, the date on which the infected batch was put up for sale, from the Netherlands. It is unknown whether the animals arrived as carriers of the virus or were infected in Hong Kong. “Internationally, there is no evidence that pets transmit the coronavirus to humans, but (…) we will take precautionary measures against any transmission vector,” explained Sophia Chan, the Secretary of Health, at a press conference. .

A woman brings her master to the Sha Tin animal management center on WednesdayBERTHA WANG (AFP)

The decision to euthanize the animals outraged pet owners and animal rights organizations. More than 25,000 people, out of a population of 7.4 million Hong Kongers, signed a petition calling for an “unfair and brutal” measure to be withdrawn. “A pet is its owner’s best friend, and thousands of people could unjustifiably lose their most beloved companions to government orders,” the petition states.

An animal rights organization, Life on Palm, claims to have received calls from more than a hundred hamster owners concerned about the health of their families and considering getting rid of them. The group, quoted by the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post, urges the authorities not to cull the rodents and wonders about the need to kill so many animals when the positives were detected in a single store. Instead, he recommends testing them for covid and keeping them under observation in a ventilated place.

But government scientists spoke out against this option, stating that the territory lacks facilities to maintain and carry out covid tests to as many specimens under the right conditions.

Speaking to the Commercial Radio station, microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung added the low proportion of the population vaccinated against covid to the reasons for the sacrifice. “This decision would not have been necessary if the entire Hong Kong population had been inoculated,” he alleged. Although more than 70% of the residents of the enclave received at least two doses, among those over 80 years of age that figure drops to less than 20%. “Doctors respect all lives, but when it comes to fighting the pandemic and public health, you have to make a decision about what is best for everyone”he declared.

At the animal management center, a man surnamed Chan who came to deliver his hamster told Hong Kong television RTHK his support for the official decision. “I have children at home, better not take risks”. Another citizen, surnamed Hau, told the agency AFP his concern for the health of his elderly parents, with whom he shares a house, although he recognized that his 10-year-old son was inconsolable over the loss of his pet Pudding. “I have no choice, the government made it sound so serious,” he declared.

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